Who’s that Bob Hamilton guy who edged the legendary Byron Nelson in match play at the 1944 PGA Championship held at Manito Golf and Country Club in Spokane? And who is Hilary Lunke, the one-win wonder who survived an 18-hole playoff to win the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge, the first qualifier to ever win that national championship?
Hamilton and Lunke – major underdogs. Sometimes a great notion allows the unexpected to bring us heroes.
That adage is spot-on in the new “The Phantom of the Open” movie that is set to premiere in theaters nationwide beginning June 3. The movie tells the humorous and heart-warming – and true – story of a modern-day Don Quixote who, instead of tilting at windmills, tries to qualify for the British Open.
With victors come the spoils and, as “Phantom” proves, so does shooting a 49-over-par 121 in an Open Championship qualifier.
Based on the true story of the “world’s worst golfer,” let’s roll back the calendar to 1975. That’s when Maurice Flitcroft, a 46-year-old crane operator at a shipyard in the port town of remote Burrow-in-Furness, England, gets relieved from his duties. Forced to find something to do with his life, he proclaims he’ll give playing in the British Open “a crack” after watching Tom Watson hole the winning putt on TV to claim the Claret Jug.
That’s the whim of all whims, given Maurice had never picked up a golf club, hardly qualifies for a club membership, holds nary a clue about golf rules and probably defines a sand trap as a jellyfish catcher on a beach. Used clubs of suspect caliber, a dastardly red golf bag, and raggedy argyle vests and bucket hats are other indicators that Maurice might not belong in a tournament even for first-time hackers.
But the dreamer gives golf a shot. He practices wherever and whenever he can, be it on any piece of grass he can find, and even on a beach. The audacity of a guy who thinks one year of hacking it around can lead him from pre-novice to a competitor on a world stage.
A miscue on the part of the Royal & Ancient, the overseer of the Open Championship, slides Maurice into a qualifying tournament, and here is where history is made.
At the 1976 Open Championship qualifying round held at Formby Golf Club in Liverpool, Maurice displays his un-prowess by shooting 121, the worst score ever at an Open qualifier, and a record that still stands today. His scorecard is littered with eights, 10s and 12s. Ground balls, flubs and wayward shots rule the day, but the stoic Maurice shows no sign whatsoever of upset or even emotion. He keeps plodding along.
The British press and journalists globally go wild over Maurice’s story, dubbing him the “world’s worst golfer.” It goes viral (yes, even before Internet and social media) and Maurice becomes an international folk hero.
The Royal & Ancient tried to ban him from ever playing again. Undeterred, Maurice doesn’t give up and, over the next two decades, he relentlessly tries to qualify for the Open Championship in increasingly bizarre ways.
Maurice enters under various pseudonyms such as Gene Pacecki, Gerald Hoppy, James Beau Jolly, Arnold Palmtree and Count Manfred Von Hoffmenstal, among others, employing elaborate disguises such as fake moustaches, wigs and a deer-stalker hat. His game never improves to professional levels, but he’s determined to pursue his passion, and he last played in an Open qualifier in 1990.
That’s what dreams are made of – being the best one can be (within any personal limitations), and being happy with the result for simply trying.
“Phantom” is full of hijinks and hilarity, tight family relationships and Kleenex moments. And proof this isn’t an amateur golf movie lies award-worthy stars, Mark Rylance as Maurice and Sally Hawkins as wife Jean. The former captured an Oscar in 2015 for his work in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” and the latter is a two-time Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner for her performance in the dramedy “Happy Go Lucky” in 2008. This is the big leagues.
“Phantom” could be the most delightful and inspiring golf movie of all time.